The Atlanta Falcons are flying high with a 6-0 record heading into their off-week, a full 3.5 games ahead of everyone else in the NFC South. The way they’ve stayed perfect isn’t rocket science, either.
In the present-day NFL, the recipe for success is two-fold: pass the ball well, and have an opportunistic defense. In other words, surround your quarterback with weapons and build a defense that forces lots of turnovers, and you can abandon the running game and still be a very good club.
That, in a nutshell, is the exact way the 2012 Atlanta Falcons have been getting it done.
Much was made about the Falcons’ decision to spend a handful of draft picks landing wide receiver Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft — it was a polarizing pick, to say the least. In his second season, Jones ranked No. 28 in the league in receiving with 63 yards per game. In their 23-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday afternoon, Jones recorded — you guessed it — 63 yards through the air. He’s only scored four touchdowns in six games this year, but he has taken a lot of defensive attention off fellow receiver Roddy White, and in turn, White is the seventh-best receiver in the league (through the first five weeks).
Harry Douglas has added some firepower through the air, and running back Jacquizz Rodgers is a threat out of the backfield. Throw in future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez as another reliable target in short-yardage situations, and you have one of the league’s prominent passing games. It doesn’t even matter that running back Michael Turner has fallen all the way back to No. 15 in the NFL in rushing; This is a passing league now, and a dominant running back isn’t very important anymore.
As I mentioned, an above-average passing game is only half the battle. To be really good, the defense must also hold up on their end. They can’t just stop opposing offenses — they have to take the ball away and set up good field position for their offense, or, even better, score points off those turnovers.
Looking at the Falcons, you see a defense that is the best in the league in turnover margin. Right now, their margin is plus-10 through six games, meaning the Falcons’ defense has forced 10 more turnovers than their offense has committed. Usually, if you have a positive turnover margin, you’re in position to do some good things. Through Week 5, plus-10 was the best margin in the NFL, and it may still be No. 1 going into their next game in two weeks.
Case in point: Sunday’s victory over the Raiders might not have happened if it weren’t for Asante Samuel’s 80-yard touchdown return off a Carson Palmer interception. The Falcons went out and got a guy like Samuel in the offseason because he can make the game-changing play the defense lacked in 2011. Now, they’re reaping the benefits of several guys on their defensive unit that can take the ball away and set up Matt Ryan’s offense to win ballgames.
After six games, I don’t think the Falcons are the best team in the NFL. I think they will be tested by better teams in the final 10 games of their regular season. But they have shown a lot of heart in those six victories, and they won a couple of games they had no business winning because of clutch passing and timely turnovers, forced by their defense.
The icing on the cake has been the game-winning kicks from Matt Bryant. He has made this team flat-out unbeatable in the first six games of the year.